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Learning a New Lanuguage with not an English Translation in Sight 

Rosetta Stone present an entirely new way to learn a new language, modelled closely on how children learn their native tongue.For some of us learning a new language is easy, for others tortuous. However, we over look the fact that we all learnt our native language without a textbook or translator in sight. Usually by about the age of 5 we have a large command of our mother tongue and a vast vocabulary without ever knowing about verbs, nouns, pronouns and tenses. Somehow we just get it. And that's the whole theory behind Rosetta Stone's language course.
Rosetta-Stone Italian Course - image of box

This software, available to learn in 30 different languages,  throws you straight into your new language without a written or spoken word of your home language in sight.  The learning is based on seeing pictures and hearing and seeing words, just as if you were growing up with those words and images around you.

I tried out Rosetta-Stone Italian package, mainly because I don't speak a word of Italian and wanted to try it out as a complete beginner.  Had I have chosen French, my scanty knowledge would have spoilt the experience.

The Rosetta Stone language package comes with an installation CD and the course CD.  I took just a couple of minutes to load, then straight in to play.  Now being the least technically able of the writers here, if something works for me within 5 minutes, I can usually be sure that pretty much anyone else with a basic command of a keyboard can play along too.

There is a simple to follow menu which you can start at the beginning and go backwards to revise, or forwards to progress.  The sections cover basic topic areas, for example starting off with the names for groups of people and activities.  There are five types of exercise for each topic area:

In the listening and reading section you are read a short phrase and presented with four pictures, then you click on the picture you think matches  For example, "un bambino" is written and spoken on the first screen and you are presented with a picture of a girl, one of a boy, one of a cat and one of a dog.  You click the one you think is right (in this instance the boy) and then "Un carne" is presented to you (this by the way is the dog).  All sounds easy so far.  Well of course it does get more difficult as you go through each screen, but somehow you make links in your brain between the words presented and you start to work out what is what, naturally, just the way a child would.  It reminds me very much of when I showed my children flashcards with bright pictures and words on them, only more sophisticated.  Gradually the topics become more difficult and the sentences longer. 

Within an evening I was translating small sentences such as: "E bianco il pesce? Si, e bianco" - "Is the fish white?  Yes it is white."  By the end of Level 1 Unit 1 (all in one evening) I was translating such strange sentences as "Chi sta mangiando una carota? Il cavallo sta mangiando una carota?"  Broadly translated this means "Who is eating a carrot?  The horse is eating a carrot?"  Now as bizarre as these sentences are only 2 hours earlier I didn't speak any Italian beyond "Mama, mia".   There are 19 units in total in Levels 1 and 2, with up to 12 lessons in each - so about 200 lessons in total.

The Listening skills section works the same way with four images from which you select the same image.  However, this time you just listen to the word/phrase and can't see the written version.   In the Reading section you can see the words written but do not hear them.  In the speaking section the words are spoken to you and you speak them back to the computer.  Now this bit of the programme only works if you have a microphone on your PC.  I didn't have one, so can't comment on this learning skill.  However, my understanding is that you can keep repeating the words and the programme will mark how well you are saying the words, how close to the language. 

The last skill is writing.  You listen to a phrase and then type it.  This is probably the hardest skill, as you need to understand and remember what has been said to you, then write it with all the correct spellings.  Where you get a wrong spelling, the letter is highlighted and you get to guess again.  This can be a long process. However, you do quickly learn, as there is no net to catch you.  No easy route to fall back onto.  So you'll learn to be precise pretty quickly.  In the writing section there are easier versions.  For example in one set of exercises you are read the phrase and the words are presented scrambled up.  You use your mouse to put them in the right order.  Arguably it's in this writing section that you really get to know the language better.  It's so much more challenging than the first skill of matching pictures to words.  The keyboard you use in the programme correlates to the keyboard in that country - not your own keyboard.  Initially this frustrated me as my letter 'm' kept appearing on the screen as a comma! 

This is a very clever piece of software.  I am most impressed.  It is very intuitive to follow, with the exception of needing a few minutes to work out the menu structure and where the back key was!   You learn to recognise a vast vocabulary very quickly.  On the box they make a very big claim "The Fastest Way to Learn a Language. Guaranteed".  I couldn't back that up with statistics, but I wouldn't be surprised to find it is the fastest way to get to grips with a language, without actually being in the country itself.  It does mimic the way a child would learn.  However, you do need to remember that a child in it's native country will be surrounded by that language every waking hour 365 days a year.  So to get the most out of this programme you will need to stick with it and put the hours in.  It will provide a welcome change though to learning the way we did in school.  Without the effort of having to translate, it does seem to come easier and quicker.  It's also a fun way for children to learn.

The programme comes with written manuals.  Again not a word of English is in sight.  No translations provided!  It's a sink or swim approach - but it seems to work.

In language learning, software programmes will always have some limitations over being there in person.   To really be able to speak a language you need to be able to converse with people as well.  There is no opportunity within this programme for conversation with another individual.  As far as I can work out, the programme also doesn't challenge you to make up your own sentences, in the same way that you might have learnt to write a letter to your French pen pal about your holidays as we did at school.  So there's a lot more in this programme about comprehension than about mastering how to put together your own sentences.  I'd say the best way to use this programme is to build up a large vocabulary and comprehension of a language, as the perfect companion to evening classes or visiting the country to get the conversation practice and interaction.

Rosetta Stone packages from Amazon start at £129.99 for Level 1 for one language, and £209.99 for Levels 1 and 2 of your chosen language.  This is a premium priced product when compared to Linguaphone or off the shelf books with CDs.  However, if their claim to be the fastest learning system around is correct, you could save yourself a lot of learning time with this system.

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